Pioneer Women of Seattle

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 12/05/2005
  • Essay 7540
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This account of the women members of the Denny Party, founders of Seattle, was contributed by Dorothea Nordstrand (1916-2011).

Seattle's Pioneer Women

Arthur Denny, Lee Terry, Carson Boren, John Low, and William Bell, along with two bachelors, Charles Terry and David Denny, have long been regarded as Seattle's founders, but little mention is made of the brave women who were full partners in the bold venture, Mary Ann Denny, her sister, Louisa Boren, their sister-in-law, Mary Boren, Lydia Low, and Sarah Ann Bell.

The small band of settlers that historians call "the Denny Party" numbered 24: five women, seven men, and 12 children. The oldest child was nine years old. Four were mere babies.

All accounts say that the women cried on that dreary, long ago day of November 13, 1851, when they landed from the little schooner, Exact, onto the uncompromisingly wet beach, later to be named "Alki." They had reason to cry. In this unfamiliar land, it would be their formidable task to make homes for their trail-weary families.

On the small point of land stood one partially built, roofless log cabin. The water of Elliott Bay was a dull, pewter gray, and what could be seen through the downpour of the rugged hills around them was thickly thatched with dark green forest. The weather was doing what it does best on our worst days on Puget Sound. Cold rain was falling in a steady, drenching, dismal downpour. This gray wilderness was supposed to be the end of their particular rainbow, but there was no "pot of gold" visible in the gloom.

These women were not cry-babies. They had kept their spirits up during the long trek by covered wagon and by foot, from their homes in the safe settlements "back East." Most of their possessions and friends were left behind when they agreed to go with their men-folk into the unknown country of the West. They had survived the personal privations, the awful loneliness, severe illness and fever, and terrifying encounters with hostile Indians. They endured the grueling grind of wagons over long, tedious miles. It was unfriendly country where they averaged a bone-bruising 18 miles a day. There were meals to prepare and washing to do under extremely trying conditions. They coped.

In the rugged Rocky Mountains, all hands were needed to bring their little band and its meager belongings through the tumble of rocks and up the steep grades. At times, the women were called upon to handle the four-horse teams, while the men used heavy ropes, snubbed around the trunks of trees, to help the horses drag the heavily laden wagons to the tops of hills. Then, on the other side, they faced the even more daunting task of controlling the horses while the men used the ropes to slow their descent. No sissies, these.

More than once, it was necessary to tallow and tar the undersides of their precious wagons so that they would float over rivers where the water was too deep for the wheels to touch bottom. All they owned in the world was contained within the canvas covers of those four small wagons picking their slow miles through mostly hostile country, 108 days and 2,000 miles toward the new settlements in the Willamette Valley of Oregon Territory.

On the journey, the children suffered from severe cases of whooping-cough and most of the adults had recurrent illness from "ague," a malarial fever. Mary Ann was already expecting her third child when the Dennys left Illinois. Her pregnancy was a difficult one, due to sickness from the fever and the unremitting hardships. The baby, Rolland Herschel Denny, was born only 10 days after their party reached Portland.

It distressed them when they passed discarded household goods, attesting to the struggle others were having to keep going. Bones of domestic animals edged their way. Hardest of all for them to bear were the stone-covered mounds that marked the graves of travelers like themselves. One very tiny one, marked with a little wooden cross from which hung a small, pink bonnet, must have haunted those mothers.

Once, it was necessary to hide the 22-year-old Louisa in one of the wagons and flee when a persistent Indian brave was determined to trade a string of horses for her. He would not take "no" for an answer! When his threats became ugly, their only recourse was to outrun him to avoid bloodshed.

The overland trail ended at the mighty falls of The Dalles on the Columbia River. At this point the group divided. Some of the men took the horses and wagons over the only road, the very difficult Barlow Pass. The family men, wanting to make things easier for their wives and children, chartered two large, open boats with hired oarsmen to take them down the river from below these unnavigable falls. They loaded possessions and people into the boats and pushed out into the current.

They nearly met with disaster that night. One boat barely escaped being dashed into the rapids of the Columbia near Cascade Falls, when their hired boatmen drank too much "Blue Ruin." In their drunken state they refused to believe they had traveled into danger. Only the determined, frantic insistence of Louisa that she could hear the falls, finally convinced the oarsmen to bring the craft to shore, far beyond the usual landing place. A few minutes more and that boatload would have tumbled to destruction in the turbulent rapids.

They must have been physically and mentally exhausted when they reached what they thought would be their final destination, the broad, fertile Willamette Valley. There, they found cozy settlements and smiling people who welcomed them. Yet, there is no record of dissention by the women when their men decided to forgo this friendly area to thrust farther into the wilderness. On the trail, they had heard it told that the Puget Sound country was the true land of opportunity. Besides, within these men was the burning urge to find their own place and build their own city. That was the women’s bright dream, too.

Two men went to scout the possibilities of the land 200 miles to the north. Their final choice was the point of land, now Alki. One man, David Denny, stayed to build cabins. The other, John Low, returned south to guide the settlers.

The schooner Exact was outfitting in Portland to transport miners to the newly discovered gold fields in the Queen Charlotte Islands, far to the north. Her captain, Isaiah Folger, agreed to carry our pioneers to Puget Sound, so they crowded aboard for an uncomfortable, wave-tossed nine days' voyage. None had been aboard a ship before. They were all miserably seasick.

Yes, the women cried, their sunbonnets drooping and the fringes on their shawls dripping. Their precious families and few possessions were being pelted by rain, and the houses they had been promised did not exist.

Young David, who had been left to build them, had fallen ill. One small, unroofed, unfinished cabin was all there was for 24 people. Between their sobs, the women moved their pitifully few belongings out of the way of the incoming tide, and draped tablecloths and sheets over bushes to make some shelter, while their men-folk set to work to split shakes and roof the cabin.

It is recorded that a sudden, blazing beam of sunlight broke through the dark clouds, highlighting their new surroundings in a glory of golden light. That, and the promise of a sound roof over their heads, was all that it took. The tears were over, as though they had never been. The women rolled up their soggy sleeves and began the familiar tasks that would make this place their home.


This account of the women members of the Denny Party, founders of Seattle, was contributed by Dorothea Nordstrand.

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